The first flight of the SpaceX Falcon Heavy, the prospect of seeing the Big Falcon Rocket as well as the Blue Origin New Glenn, has called into question that utility of NASA’s heavy-lift rocket project, the space launch system. While the commercial heavy-lift rockets are becoming available for little or no money expended by NASA, the Space Launch System is costing the space agency $2.6 billion per year to develop, with the first flight now scheduled for 2020 and the first crewed flight in 2023. Moreover, the SLS can launch only once a year and will cost $1 billion to do so.

Cancel the space launch system?

The Space Launch System was born in the ashes of the Bush-era Constellation space exploration program. When President Obama abruptly canceled the program, without consulting Congress and without a viable alternative to send American astronauts to the moon and Mars, the legislative branch mandated that the SLS be built. Congress mandated the design and the technology that would go into the massive rocket, the better to prevent NASA from playing bureaucratic games to delay making it.

Even before the Falcon Heavy launch, some criticized the expense of the Space Launch System. Its supporters were able to point out that without any alternative, canceling the SLS would be tantamount to canceling all hope for human space exploration beyond low Earth orbit for the foreseeable future, a hidden goal of the Obama administration.

However, with the Falcon Heavy, SpaceX’s Elon Musk has now provided the start of that alternative.

The case, therefore, for freeing up that $2.6 billion becomes compelling. The money could be used to accelerate the timetable for President Trump’s back to the moon program, building landers and other technologies that would put people back on the lunar surface sooner rather than later.

What about Space Launch System 2.0.?

A recent article in the Space Review suggests ways to improve the Space Launch System by changing its design. The changes would include making the first stage core of the rocket reusable and able to land. Then the current SRB rockets would be replaced by Falcon strap-on rockets similar to the ones that help power the Falcon Heavy to space.

The article even suggests that as many as ten Falcon strap-ons could be included on the revised SLS, giving it an enormous lift capacity that would dwarf any previous launch vehicle. The primary payload for such a monster rocket would be satellites that are hardened against enemy ASAT weapons, thus making them more survivable in time of war. The reusable monster rocket could fly several times a year. It would also be paid for by the military, thus freeing NASA of its development costs but preserving the project to the satisfaction of its congressional guardians.

Can the redesign and repurposing be done? The matter at least begs for further study.

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